How Software Complexity Impacts sUAV Pilots and What Can be Done About It

We unmanned pilots have a lot in common with our manned aircraft brethren sans the luxury of sitting onboard the aircraft. As such, taking advantage of systems that help our piloting capabilities are welcome. Remember forgetting to turn on the GoPro camera of your Phantom 2 only to learn after landing that nothing was recorded? Should I mention the separate battery and components necessary to establish the video telemetry? GPS connected stabilization, controller operation of camera functions, video links, data collection and more have made our jobs less tedious.

As drone pilots, we conduct safe, effective and efficient flights for our employers or clientele. My master acronym for establishing safe flight strategies is WEPAC (Weather, Environment, Personnel, Aircraft, Communications). In this article, I focus solely on drone flight systems and related automation.

To tackle the theme of this article we need to define complexity. My definition is a situation or factors that can increase the risk of an unsuccessful flight. The higher the complexity, the higher the associated risk. However, we must also recognize that definition is elusive since what’s complex for one pilot may be child’s play for another.

As the demands of our customers change, it appears that the systems we use to fly those missions will as well. Quoting one of my favorite philosophers George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Here are a few examples of aircraft cockpit evolution to help gain some historical perspective.

How Software Complexity Impacts Suav Pilots And What Can Be Done About It

As is evidenced from the photos above, automation, with its inherent sophistication and related complexity continues to permeate our industry as it has manned aircraft. I can foresee the day when we become less stick pushers to becoming more flight management system (FMS) programmers. There are many manufacturers and third-party vendors who provide drone flight and automated systems, some quite simple, some very robust (complex). Their features and sophistication appear to grow by the day. But do they diminish our capabilities as pilots or make it better for us to complete our assignments? It all depends.

There is little doubt that the latest multi-rotors are stable and relatively easy to fly. It’s not unusual to see the PIC kibitzing with colleagues with the drone aloft, oblivious to what’s happening in the air or on the ground. Are we pilots becoming over-reliant on these built-in conveniences? One way to find out, and I test this with my students, is to fly a Phantom 2 switching it from GPS to ATTi to Manual mode. Just make sure you have lots of altitude before switching to Manual mode. Why do this? To confirm that our basic skills have not atrophied; thus being able to recover the ship in case our GPS link is lost, the controller screen goes blank or quits functioning or from the unexpected flyaway.

So what are we to do? Here are four (4) steps that may help.

Embrace Technology. I believe, while continuing to maintain our basic flight skills, we need to embrace this technology albeit with a very insightful and frugal mindset. Increased education, training and detailed understanding are essential, whether self-taught or with the aid of outside help. This regimen would and should become part of our flight operations procedures helping increase our proficiency and comfort level in utilizing these robotic capabilities.

Research. Initial and ongoing research, investigation and most importantly testing should become a staple in our quest to competency. We should strive to make procedures easy to follow, obtaining quick access to needed information, including the necessary updates and changes that are bound to come along. We should establish a plan to experiment with their functionality and capabilities, at a test site, to ensure that what we expect to happen matches what does happen, with no surprises. The testing should be completed before actual commercial use. This consideration should also include what type of support we can expect from the supplier after purchase. One such system I’ve utilized possesses noteworthy capabilities but recommending it is problematic since support to date has been abysmal.

Knowledge Development. We should know well under what flight conditions, environments and mission specifics our automated friend(s) work best. I still remember a newbie proudly displaying his new quad and installed automation software (he had never flown the ship prior to this event) launching into a 25 gusting to 37-knot wind never to see his prized possession again.

Documentation. We should record and document our results, good and not so, thus building a repository of information and reference data, to guide our growing familiarity with and expertise of automation applications. Otherwise, as George has stated, well you get the point.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas.

Robert Zarracina
Flight Ventures Ltd.